Lewis & Clark among the Indians Afterword

James P. Ronda© 1984University of Nebraska PressLincoln and London
"We have been to the great lake of the west and are now on our return to my
country. I have seen all my red children quite to that great lake and talked with
them, and taken them by the hand in the name of their great father the Great
Chief of all the white people."
William Clark, 1806

On a cold rainy day in mid-May 1806, Meriwether Lewis sat in camp along the Clearwater River and wondered where the Indians were. For the first time in many weeks no Nez Perces came to talk, trade, or stare at the bearded strangers. [1] It was almost two years to the day since the Lewis and Clark expedition had begun its western venture. Those years had been filled with a native presence that bound Indians and explorers together in a common struggle to survive. Formal conferences, personal friendships, and chance meetings all bridged the cultural divide. Indians were so much a part of the life of the expedition that their absence was worthy of note. When no Indians were present as actors and audience, Lewis and Clark felt strangely alone.

Whether written as simple fact or out of belief to be free from inquisitive neighbors, Lewis's observation reveals something fundamental about western exploration in general and Thomas Jefferson's Corps of Discovery in particular. Exploration was a cooperative endeavor requiring substantial information and support from the Indians. The Indians shaped the exploratory effort by their very presence on the land. They were people to be reckoned with, whether as potential sources of aid or as possible enemies. No latter-day Coronado or Champlain could ignore them. The anticipated behavior of the Indians was a decisive factor in the choice of equipment, personnel, routes, camp rules, and even ultimate destination. Whatever the official objectives, explorers carefully considered their presence.

But we need to measure more than explorer's reactions to a passive population. Indians were active participants in exploration, as the first comers to the land and, later, as guides for Euro-Americans. To a vast enterprise they lent their intelligence, skill, and nerve. Certainly the Lewis and Clark expedition benefited greatly from the Indians' knowledge and support. Maps, route information, food, horses, openhanded friendship—all gave the Corps of Discovery the edge that spelled the difference between success and failure. The presence of Sacagawea on the expedition's roster is only the barest hint of what Indian support meant to Lewis's "darling project." That roster should also include names like Sheheke, Cameahwait, Old Toby, Tetoharsky, Twisted Hair, and Flint Necklace. There needs to be a place for those unnamed Shoshoni women who carried expedition baggage over Lemhi Pass as well as for countless Indians who traded food and affection. As guides, packers, interpreters, and cartographers, native Americans were essential to Lewis and Clark's achievement.

Lewis and Clark left St. Louis filled with apprehension about encounters with hostile Indians. But what emerged over nearly two and a half years of western travel was an atmosphere of friendship and mutual trust between men and women who shared a common frontier life. Indians and explorers stood together in the rituals of hunting, holidays, and horse racing. Sex, sports, and music were simple pleasures that united strangers. Lewis admitted as much when he wrote, "So long have our men been accustomed to a friendly intercourse with the natives, that we find it difficult to impress on their minds the necessity of always being on guard with rispect to them." [2] The assertion that the Corps of Discovery acted like "a conquering army" of hungry imperialists does not square with either the Lewis and Clark record or the larger history of North American exploration. [3] Lewis and Clark neither enslaved Indians as did DeSoto nor pillaged pueblos as did Coronado. Stealing a canoe from Coboway and tricking Cameahwait stand out in the journal notes because they were exceptional acts, not typical of the captains and their crew.

The typical patterns of friendship and sharing that generally characterized Indian-expedition relations were not the result of any special nobility of character on either side of the cultural divide. Native hospitality was both genuine and useful as tribal people sought trade or attempted to manipulate the expedition for personal ends. For their part, Lewis and Clark recognized the necessity of Indian cooperation. There were undeniable moments of swagger, bluster, and arrogance, but more often than not good sense and patience won the day. Clark once bragged that he could have tomahawked terrified Umatillas, but he did not do the deed. Despite angry threats, no member of the expedition put the torch to mat lodges at The Dalles. And Lewis would not allow George Drouillard and the Field brothers to shoot unarmed Piegans in the heat of the Two Medicine fray. For most of the journey there was mutual respect born of expediency. That respect and friendship was genuine nonetheless. Lewis and Clark left behind among many Indians a legacy of nonviolent contact. Those who came later enjoyed that legacy and too often betrayed it.

If expedition-Indian personal relations were amiable, success did not come so easily when Lewis and Clark ventured into diplomatic waters. Clark claimed that the swivel gun he gave to the Hidatsa chief Le Borgne had spoken in thunder to "all the nations we had seen." [4] But what the gun said and how its report was answered depended on circumstances far beyond the expedition's control. Lewis and Clark believed that official diplomacy was a simple matter of rearranging Indian patterns to suit the needs of the new nation. Proclaiming American sovereignty, establishing trade connections, and constituting delegations to visit Jefferson all seemed goals within each reach. Who could deny the rationality of intertribal peace or a united front against common enemies? But when the captains sought to implement those policies, they met the often unyielding realities of village and band politics. Lewis and Clark's ill-considered attempt to forge a villager alliance against the Teton Sioux illustrates the depth of their ignorance. The explorers comprehended neither river economics nor plains politics. In a world where "peace" meant "truce" and where warriors fought one day and traded the next, Lewis and Clark were simply unable and sometimes unwilling to face the facts of native life.

Lewis and Clark's Indian diplomacy failed in part because the explorers were blind to those western facts of life. But the failure of the villager alliance and the promises of intertribal peace extracted at so many councils came from something more fundamental than naive optimism. What seemed failure for the captains was often success for the chiefs. It was more than inept policy and cultural arrogance that kept federal goals just out of reach. When Lewis and Clark came into the West and Pacific Northwest, native political sovereignty and autonomy were still potent realities. Men like Le Borgne, Cameahwait, and Broken Arm enjoyed genuine power. They and their counselors could make decisions without bowing to the dictates of faraway white fathers. Despite Lewis and Clark's rhetoric, western Indians were not "our red children." Rather, they were mature adults with a substantial measure of freedom to choose those parts of the American program that best suited their own needs. Diplomacy during the journey was ceremony and talk among equals, even if Lewis and Clark did not always recognize that fact. If the captains failed to persuade the Indians to become children of a distant father, it was because the Indians still had the power to accept American guns whie rejecting less useful gifts.

Bernard DeVoto once wrote that the records of the Lewis and Clark expedition amounted to "the first detailed account of whatever length, of the western tribes." [5] The ethnographic legacy has proven to be one of Lewis and Clark's most durable contributions, although its value was not plain at the time of the expedition. Guided by Jefferson's precise instructions and their own curiosity, expedition ethnographers amassed a virtual library of information about the Indians. Journal entries, vocabularies, drawings, maps, artifacts, population estimates—all hold priceless knowledge about Indian ways from the great river to the western sea. When Nicholas Biddle first examined that ethnographic data, he felt some reason to apologize for its inadequacies. "Those who first visit the ground," wrote the Philadelphian," can only be expected to furnish sketches, rude and imperfect." [6] But Biddle's evaluation missed the mark. The expedition gathered far more than "rude and imperfect" records. In their writing, drawing, and collecting they managed to capture an essential part of American life on the edge of profound change.

In 1821 an obscure North West Company mariner named Peter Corney wrote, "By the journey of Captains Lewis and Clark across the Rocky mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the whole of that western region is now laid open." [7] It was more than rivers and mountains that were laid open to view. Lewis and Clark were part of an expansionist movement that steadily brought traders, bureaucrats, ranchers, and farmers into Mandan, Shoshoni , Nez Perce , and Chinookan homelands. "We were happy when he [the white man] first came," explained the Flathead chief Charlot. "We first thought he came from the light; but he comes like the dusk of evening now, not like the dawn of morning. He comes like a day that has passed, and night enters our future with him." [8] But that night had not yet come in 1806. In tales repeated in lodge and tepee, in the faces of children paler than their brothers and sisters, in cherished flags and medals, and in individual memories now lost, Lewis and Clark seemed part of the dawn. They appeared as the Shoshonis described them—"children of the Great Spirit" who offered dazzling gifts. That the coming day would bring other, duller lights was a scene not yet revealed to William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, much less to men like Cameahwait and Yelleppit. Having shared a moment in history, each slipped away to wonder about the fate of the other.


B A E       Bureau of American Ethnology

Field Notes.       Osgood, Ernest, S., ed. The Field Notes of Captain William Clark, 1803–1805. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964.

Gass, Journal.       Gass, Patrick. A Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery. Edited by David McKeehan. 1807. Reprint, with preface by Earle R. Forrest. Minneapolis: Ross and Haines, 1958.

Ordway, Journal.       Quaife, Milo M., ed. The Journals of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Sergeant John Ordway. Madison: Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1916.

Thw.       Thwaites, Reuben G., ed. The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 8 vols. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1904–1905.

Whitehouse, Journal.       "The Journal of Private Joseph Whitehouse." In Thw. 7:29–190.


1. Thw. 5:44. (back)
2. Ibid. 4:89–90. (back)
3. William Nichols, "Lewis and Clark Probe the Heart of Darkness," American Scholar 49 (1979–80): 97. (back)
4. Thw. 5:343. (back)
5. Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1953), p. lii. (back)
6. Biddle-Coues, History, 2:762. (back)
7. Peter Corney, Voyages in the Northern Pacific, 1813–1818 (1821; reprint, Fairfield, Washington: Ye Galleon Press, 1965), p. 91. (back)
8. Frederick W. Turner III, ed., The Portable North American Indian Reader (New York: Viking Press, 1974), pp. 253–54. (back)